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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Walk like an Egyptian

On our way back to Zimbabwe on January 7 we flew Egypt Air through Cairo. Rather than hunker down for our 13-hour layover in the Cairo Airport, we decided to venture outside the airport to pay King Tut a visit. Little did we know, there was rioting in the capital on the same day, but our cab skirted the downtown area and headed for the old city of Giza. I think the Egyptians have been starved for tourists since their revolution a year ago, and continued unrest hasn’t improved the industry. As a result, we were sitting ducks and the prices we were quoted shifted constantly in the upward direction. What began as a simple cab ride to a quick walk around the pyramids turned into hiring a camel and horse to trek over the dunes and past the sphinx. Ale and I were ready to head back to the airport without seeing anything after a marathon negotiation/bartering session in the back room of an incense-filled shop. Finally we reached terms with our host Mohammed and our guide Kareem, and emerged from the war room slightly beleaguered but anticipating our first encounter with the iconic humped mammal.

Turns out camels are ugly. And smelly. In Giza they had camel parking lots, where camels were tied up in rows like horses in the wild west. I braved the camel first, and it protested noisily as our 12-year-old camel master forced it to its knees so I could clamber aboard. The camel-kneeling process seemed to take forever as the beast folded its gangly legs under it like an ironing board collapsing, and creakily and complainingly touched down on the hard-packed earth. Now I gripped the tattered knit blankets that formed a saddle, snatched the reins, and vaulted aboard, holding    on for dear life as the ironing board unfolded lurchingly for what seemed like forever and my perch just kept getting higher. Soon my knees were above Ale’s head where he sat atop a dun mare next to me. Camels are really tall. Our camel, Michael Jackson, and many of the camels we passed, had tattoos etched into the hide on their neck to identify them. Many were also adorned with ear piercings, and all were draped with colorful blankets/saddles and masticated the same neon-green, pungent cud which they coughed up noisily at intervals.

I think Kareem took us the back way into the pyramids because we had a little tour of the city of Giza, down alleyways and past trash heaps where old women sifted with sticks for useful items. I felt like a real chump because we’re such known commodities in Bulawayo now that I no longer feel like a tourist. But trust me, nothing will make you feel more like a tourist than being a blond-haired American swaying regally down an Egyptian causeway nine feet above the crowds. Meanwhile, our guides kept telling Ale how Egyptian he looks. Odd man out. Finally we reached a gate that let us into the vast area of dunes surrounding the pyramids, Sphinx, and tombs. Whatever package we had negotiated for through clouds of incense included a look at the three large pyramids, one tomb, and the Sphinx. We snapped pictures in front of the pyramids, spelunked into a pretty cool tomb, and sauntered past the Sphinx. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. The chance to see the pyramids and the significant workout I got from gripping the camel with my legs on sandy 30 degree inclines made the detour from sterile airport life well worth it.

 However, the addendum to pyramid viewing which included a look into a “free art museum” which was actually a friend’s papyrus art shop, convinced me that I will not be returning to Egypt as a tourist any time soon. Our Egyptian “host,” a very large man with a perpetually flushed complexion, accompanied us everywhere to make sure we couldn’t refuse. They were all in cahoots - guy at the airport who advertised the tour, taxi driver, Mohammed, Kareem, and our next character, the wanna-be Spaniard. Inside the pristine shop, a googly-eyed salesman served us tea and insisted on speaking to us only in Spanish when he found out that we were both Spanish speakers (Ale fluent, Derek extremely rusty). His Spanish was actually Italian, so the conversation would have been difficult if his intentions weren’t abundantly clear. He harassed me in Italiaish until I settled on an Egyptian tomb scene painted on papyrus which I bartered down from $40 to $10 and bought just to shut him up. Sure was an adventure to break up the monotony of 3 straight days of traveling which included standing at the SA-Zim border from 1am to 6am the next morning, waiting to get busted for bringing in bags full of clothing and soccer cleats. I’ll take camels any day.

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